Coalitions and Digital Equity Planning

It was wonderful to be part of this year’s Net Inclusion Webinar Series, which took the place of this year’s Net Inclusion Annual Summit. On April 21st, NDIA hosted the webinar,  “Coalitions and Digital Equity Planning” moderated by amalia deloney of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation with speakers Curt Williams (Cleveland Foundation), Sharonne Navas, (Equity in Education Coalition), Aaron Schill (Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission) and me.

The webinar will be of interest to those looking to start a digital equity coalition in their community or for those coalitions interested in learning more about what other communities are doing to promote digital equity during the pandemic and beyond.

To learn more about our research mentioned in the webinar, please visit our report titled “Growing Healthy Digital Equity Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond” which was published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society in November, 2020.

CBSN Interview on Affordable Internet Access and Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

This evening, I joined CBS News political contributor and BluePrint Strategy founder Antjuan Seawright to talk with CBSN’s Lana Zak about the necessity of affordable internet access and President Biden’s infrastructure plan.

For more on the “Homework Gap,” I would recommend my colleague, John Horrigan’s excellent work in the recent Alliance for Excellent Education report, “Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap” and the Common Sense Media report, titled “The Homework Gap: Teacher Perspectives on Closing the Digital Divide.”

For more information about the necessity of affordable access to the internet, please see my 2019 article, titled “The Ability to Pay for Broadband” for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society with my colleagues, Dr. Bianca Reisdorf and Madison Bishop. To learn more about the high cost of internet service in the U.S., check out the excellent “Cost of Connectivity” report from New America.

Finally, to learn more about the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which will provide subsidized broadband access and internet-enabled devices for qualifying low-income consumers, see this excellent primer from Next Century Cities and additional information and resources from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

The Necessity of Digital Equity and Care Work

HandsIn our 2017 article, titled “Creating Caring Institutions for Community Informatics,” Dr. Miriam Sweeney (University of Alabama) and I explored the potential affordances of applying a feminist ethics of care approach to public libraries and community technology centers–the places where people go when they are unable to pay for the Internet at home.

In our paper, we argued the following: 

“An ethics of care framework has several possible affordances for infomediary practices in these institutions, including highlighting the gendered power dynamics that define and shape existing practices; distributing care work and making existing care work visible; and envisioning a more holistic and ethical approach to engaging diverse publics.”

We translated Tronto’s (2010) seven warning signs for “bad care” in public institutions into seven positive guidelines for providing “good care” in public libraries, community technology centers, and other community-care spaces. We then contextualized these guidelines for the institutions that people rely on, and increasingly during the pandemic, particularly for those who cannot afford the high cost of broadband.

These seven positive guidelines include the following main points:

  1. All humans need and deserve care
  2. Needs are contextually and culturally defined
  3. Care is a process, not a service or commodity
  4. Expertise is situated and distributed
  5. Caring is a relational process wherein people may assume many, and simultaneous, roles
  6. Caring is a routine part of every aspect of professional practice
  7. Care work is a shared responsibility; the equal distribution of care work is a political act

As the Biden Administration, members of Congress, and the Federal Communication Commission continue to push important legislation and federal programs forward to address the digital divide, I believe there is an urgent need to develop new ways of thinking about digital equity that embrace some of the ideas presented above.

This work urgently joins more recent and growing calls within the fields of social work, public librarianship, and related areas that intersect with these fields that demand we consider the ways in which economic inequality and racial injustice continue to keep digital equity out of reach for millions of Americans. This is because, as we argued in our 2017 paper, “interventions that are narrowly focused on providing individual access to technology are inadequate for addressing the structural forces that continue to shape the allocation of resources along the axes of race, class, and gender,” and other social identities.

In other words, our feminist ethics of care in digital equity work must be intersectional.

Last year, Susan Kennedy and I argued the following in our article for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society:

“To inform this work, the next administration should develop a digital equity and racial justice task force that brings together social workers, public librarians, community organizers, and other community-care practitioners to develop strategies and tools to promote digital and racial equity in communities most impacted by the pandemic.”

Federal policymakers will not be able to address the digital divide without addressing its root causes, including economic inequality, racial injustice, and other systemic social issues.

The time is now to bring together care workers with digital equity practitioners, researchers, and policymakers to ensure that federal policies and programs connect to those who need broadband the most.

(Photo above by Brenda López Espinosa available under a Creative Commons license)

Biden Administration Should Focus on The Ability to Pay for Broadband

A new article this week from Law360, titled “Biden FCC Shifts Broadband Focus From Geography To Price” describes the shift from the Trump administration’s focus on deploying broadband infrastructure in rural areas to the Biden administration’s policy focus on helping those who are unable to afford the cost of broadband.

Based on my own research and those of my colleagues, this is a much welcome and needed shift in policy priorities to ensure that those most impacted by the digital divide, particularly during the pandemic, can gain access to high-speed broadband at affordable costs.

The Ability to Pay for Broadband

In 2019, my colleagues and I published an article in the journal Communication Research and Practice, titled “The Ability to Pay for Broadband.” Based on our studies in communities across the country, we found that “although those with a limited monthly budget have an acute understanding of the value of home broadband, the costs associated with home broadband service make it difficult for them to afford.” We went on to argue that “ability to pay provides a framework for understanding the local, cultural drivers and barriers to broadband adoption in low-income communities.”

A summary of the article including our study’s main findings and implications of the research for digital inclusion policy and practice can be found on the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s website.

Connecting Digital Equity and Racial Justice

As we talk about the barriers to broadband adoption, it’s also critically important to recognize that digital equity is a racial justice issue. As we argued in our recent blog post for Benton announcing our 2020 report, titled “Growing Healthy Digital Equity Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond” we also recommend that the Biden Administration connect their focus on broadband and the economy to their racial justice agenda. As we wrote,

“To inform this work, the next administration should develop a digital equity and racial justice task force that brings together social workers, public librarians, community organizers, and other community-care practitioners to develop strategies and tools to promote digital and racial equity in communities most impacted by the pandemic.”

In the post, we elaborate on the following four recommendations to help inform this policy agenda:

  • Make broadband affordable for low-income communities of color.
  • Support second chances for economic success through digital literacy programs.
  • Ensure care workers receive training and support to help promote digital and racial equity
  • Make federal funding opportunities available for digital inclusion organizations.

We look forward to seeing how the Biden Administration will move forward to tackle these important and complex issues.

Broadband Measurement System for Public Libraries Launched

Murakami Viz
(Image above from Murakami-Viz in use at the Pryor Public Library in Oklahoma)

After two and a half years, I am incredibly excited to announce that we have successfully launched our broadband measurement system with and for public libraries across the U.S.!

Thanks to a grant (award #LG-71-18-0110-18) from the U.S. Institute for Museum and Library Services, and in partnership with Measurement Lab (M-Lab) and Internet2, our Measuring Library Broadband Networks (MLBN) research initiative has launched our open source broadband measurement system that public libraries can use to measure the speeds and quality of service of their broadband internet connections.

Here is a snippet from our new blog post, written by Chris Ritzo (M-Lab) announcing our broadband measurement system:

As we close out the calendar year, we’re focused on that future where we can measure and understand broadband access and quality using a variety of measurement tools. We’ve invited our participating libraries to review their test data in Murakami-Viz, and look forward to their feedback on it and our program in general in the coming year. M-Lab is continuing to develop Murakami as a tool that enables structured data collection using our platform, as well as using other measurement initiatives and tests.

We believe this announcement is timely given this week’s press release from the U.S. Senate announcing provisions for broadband in the Bipartisan COVID-19 Emergency Relief Act of 2020 with emergency assistance for community anchor institutions and connectivity.

For public libraries interested in gathering real-time and longitudinal data on the speeds and quality of service of their broadband internet connections, please visit our project website to learn more about how communities can participate in this open source broadband measurement initiative.

On behalf of our MLBN team, I want to thank our partners, including the many public libraries from across the country that offered their time and insights to help inform the development and implementation of our project.

Stay tuned for more project updates and our final evaluation on our MLBN project website.